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Nature Notes: American Robin

Ed Robinson
April 1, 2015
John Berry photo

As I write this article in early March, I sit in my office wearing three layers of clothing, including long underwear. For a few minutes this morning, the sun popped through the clouds and my hopes soared, but the winds soon picked up and the temperature plummeted once again. Yet I know for certain that spring is soon to bring us relief–not because of some doped-up woodchuck, but because of a plump, red breasted visitor.

Each year in late February, my wife and I can count on seeing the first robins to visit in several months. Even the birds brave enough to skip migration seem to leave our crab apple tree alone until late in winter, as if they are counting on the tart fruit to see them through the final bouts of cold weather. Last year, 15 robins came in a mob. The competition for high energy food triggered a feeding frenzy, stripping the tree in just minutes.

The robin is an iconic bird, second only to the red-winged blackbird in numbers across North America, and occupying a range throughout the year that spans from northern Canada to central Mexico. Not only is this bird a good looker; as a member of the thrush family, he can also sing a merry tune.

How many times have we enjoyed the sight and sound, on an early spring morning, of a robin perched high in a tree, bursting into song? No wonder the robin is the state bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin.

A mature robin can reach 10-11 inches in length, with a wing span up to 15 inches, weighing about three ounces. The head varies from black to gray, with a white arc around black eyes. The throat is generally streaked white and black or gray and runs down to the red breast and white belly. The beak is yellow with a darker tip, while the feet and back tend to browns. Females and juvenile birds, as is often the case, are more muted in color than the adult male. Average life spans are thought to be two to three years in the wild.

Robins are commonly seen hopping around the lawn, listening carefully, and then jumping to grab a fat earthworm. They hunt primarily by sight and by listening quietly for prey. Robins can be quite territorial in their search for food, but earthworms are only a part of their wide-ranging diet. Robins will gobble down insects, caterpillars, grubs, small amphibians and many fruits.

Along waterways, they have been observed feeding upon fish and even shellfish. While they prefer edge habitat, robins are quite adaptable and can be found anywhere from the stark forests of the northern tundra to open farmland, and even in urban centers.

While most robins migrate to winter in the southern US and Mexico, some are hardy enough to stay in places like Harpswell all winter, as long as food and shelter are available. Robins are known to return to summer habitat early, both to get first pick of emerging foods, and to stake out prime nesting sites. Robins breed early after returning to their summer habitats, and may lay eggs up to three times during a season from April to July.

Their nests tend to be several feet or more above the ground, commonly in dense cover or the fork of a tree. Early season nests are often in evergreens, presumably for shelter, while later season nests are more likely to be in the cover of deciduous trees. Robins are not shy of humans, so it is common to find them nesting around our homes and barns. Reader Jeanne Howe reports that a female robin built a nest on a window ledge outside her office, allowing Jeanne and her husband the fun of watching the chicks develop.

The nest is often made with grasses, small twigs, and feathers, and then bound together with mud and saliva. A layer of soft grass or similar materials provides a cushion for three to five eggs, and insulation against cold spring nights. The eggs are famous for their soft blue color, giving rise to a formal color name for decorating: “robin’s egg blue.” Juvenile birds are capable of flight only two weeks after hatching.

While robins were once hunted for food, they are now protected by the federal Migratory Bird Act. Their numbers in the US have been estimated at more than 300 million, and they are not considered to be at risk of major population declines.

An interesting note is that robins are known to carry the West Nile virus, along with crows and jays. The virus can kill the birds, but while living, they can transmit the virus when mosquitoes feed on their blood. So don’t go looking for love from your friendly neighborhood birds!

Robins have long had prominent roles in our culture. The Tlingit people believed the robin was created by the spirit Raven to please people with its songs. Poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem titled “I Dreaded That First Robin So” (I can’t agree with Ms. Dickinson on that!). Those of us of a certain age cannot forget two great songs from our youth, “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along” and “Rockin’ Robin.” And finally, an old superstition is that the person who sees the first robin of spring will be blessed with good fortune. Having seen my first robin this year, I’m feeling lucky, indeed.

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